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Demo Defined

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With the Live 8 weekend fast approaching I thought that in the spirit of public interest I would publish this little primer for the uninitiated. Since most of you will probably just be attending/watching the concerts there may not be much interest, but for those who have yet to get there feet wet, and are looking for some tips I thought I could finally put my years of activist activity to good use.

Did you ever Demo? You know, Demo. As in I demo, you demo, we demoed, let’s go demo at, and what are they demoing about over there? I’ll give you a hint, it has nothing to do with demographics. Give up?

Demo, short for demonstration, as in protest or other organized(so to speak) gathering of folks who vaguely have a common goal in mind. Whether pro choice, pro life, anti war, pro war, for nuclear power or against it a demo was and maybe still is the thing to do when you want to go out into public and make a noise.

Demos come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from small groups huddled nervously together in a clump, to large marches parading through the streets. They can be loose affiliations of disparate groups coming together for a common cause, or simply individuals with a bone to pick. Quite often they end up being a mixture of the two which leads to what’s known as a general strike.

Each generation seems to spawn its own issue for demo purposes. Almost if they all have a need to let off steam about something or other. Sometimes a theme like peace, or freedom is repeated, but the object of attention changes.

Demos can be parties celebrating life and the joy of being out with people of common mind. They can also degenerate into wild conflicts between baton wielding, pepper spraying police officers and rock hurling, epithet tossing demonstrators. Unfortunately it’s hard to know at the onset how any particular demonstration will turn out.

The experienced demo participant is aware of this and takes the following precautions: Always have someone standing by with bail money in case of arrest; always bring with you a good sized handkerchief or scarf that can be used to cover the mouth and eyes in case of gas; if possible wear kidney pads so if you have to turtle under a baton attack you won’t end up pissing blood(if no pads available protect your kidneys with arms leaving your head exposed, your less likely to take a hit to the head as bloody skulls don’t look good on camera and most police forces care about their images now); and finally unless your prepared too withstand most of the above mentioned abuse stay away from any fellow demo attendees whose attire includes gas masks, ski masks and goggles, or who smell strongly of gasoline.

Of course the above advice also depends on your motivation for attending a particular demo. If you are genuine in your desire to peacefully protest then those are good rules of thumb. But, as is the case for many males aged 19-24, you are there to attract demo groupies(yes they exist) it’s best to at least appear ready to either inflict or take some damage. Nothing guarantees a little post demo lust fulfillment then the smell of kerosene or the a trickle of blood(Not just crazed marine chopper pilots love the smell of napalm)

But if you can’t get a lucky injury don’t despair because the post demo dance/concert is always a good opportunity to get to know that cute somebody who caught your eye earlier. Something about a woman and a placard in camouflage….

Never, ever, ever, put your name down on paper. I don’t care what the petition is or who is handing it around. It’s not worth it no matter what the enticement.(or who) Any or all of those groups handing around petitions is infiltrated somewhere along the line, and all those names will be recorded. Those guys taking pictures are not from the press. Do not let anyone take your picture or see you clearly if they do, unless you want a permanent file somewhere up in Washington or Ottawa.

Does that sound a little paranoid? Well remember you are dealing with people who make my paranoia look mild. The F.B.I. have recently said that the biggest domestic terrorist threat facing the U.S. are environmental and animal rights groups. If that’s not paranoia I don’t know what is.(It also makes me question their priorities and wonder what ever happened to guy named Bin Laden who was responsible for having some planes crashed into buildings)

The last time I demoed was in 1997. We here in Ontario were suffering through a government who were determined to roll back as many social programs and gut as much of the education and health care budgets as possible. In response demos were organized as a means of protest. The irony of course, which was lost on most participants, was that the unions responsible for co-ordinating the proceedings had only their memberships to thank for the election of this government.

They had had no problems when the government had promised them substantial tax cuts and so voted them into power, but when it turned out that you couldn’t balance the books only by gutting programs for the poor, the middle class unions like the teachers, nurses, and public service workers all of sudden woke up to find their nice sinecures threatened.

Having just had my miniscule monthly stipend cut by 21% I was hard pressed to listen to their complaints about pension benefits with sympathy. I found myself marching with people who hadn’t given a damn for people like me and my wife. It wasn’t a demo, rather a gathering of special interest groups looking out for number one.

It made me reflect on past experiences and wonder about a demo’s validity. At there best a demo was a coming together of people with common cause. A place where one felt genuine kinship with those around you. In the fractured world of leftist political activism as I knew it these moments were few and far between. One learned to savour the breaks from infighting.

The old adage that the if the left could stop fighting amongst itself they might be able to accomplish something was never born out more then in the peace movement in Toronto in the early 1980’s. At that time the central focus was on trying to stop the testing of Cruise missiles over the Canadian west. Our government and the American’s had signed an agreement allowing them to fly over our territory as the landscape so resembled potential targets in the then Soviet Union.(These were the evil empire days of Ronald RayGuns)

Toronto was a focal point for demos because the guidance system for the Cruise was being built just outside the city limits in the Lyton Systems factory in Rexdale Ontario. After a slow start with only a few of us protesting in front of the American consulate(having our pictures taken by the nice men with the cameras)proceedings escalated until the penultimate demonstration of around 50,000 people. For a city the size of Toronto in the early eighties that was huge.

Things started to get ugly after that. When a bomb went off at Lyton Systems killing a security guard it turned a lot of people off from the supposed peaceful protesting. At that time I was a even more stupid then I am now, and didn’t know enough to get out when I should have. The show of unity that had been put on for the assembled masses quickly crumbled in the face of adversity.

Infighting broke out between traditional rivals. There were the moderates who wanted to keep on with peaceful protests, the Direct Action types who viewed the peace movement as part of the revolutionary process and to confuse the mix there were the representatives of all the different factions of the Communist party.

There were the Marxist Leninists, the Trotskyites, the Maoists, and the good old fashioned Communist Party Of Canada. It seemed the former were made up of dissatisfied members of the latter, who either couldn’t get their own way so quite to form a “real” communist party, or had been booted out for dangerous behaviour. Of these the most dangerous were the Marxist Leninists because there philosophy was to try and provoke the police to attack them to generate sympathy and cause the workers to rise up in righteous anger. Since most workers had no idea they existed and they wouldn’t have recognized a worker if they tripped over them, well you get the idea.

By the end of the summer of 1983 it was pretty much over. The bomb makers had been arrested, and every thing else just devolved away. As endings went it pretty much was a whimper.

But it hadn’t ended without leaving me with some lasting mementos. During the aftermath of the bombing my home developed a series of strange hic-ups causing my father to ask if it was possible that it was tapped(he had worked extensively as a drug prosecutor for the federal government and so was familiar with the sounds a phone would make from listening to a variety of taped conversations)When I broached the subject of the whether we could know the bombers with my then housemate, he said friends of friends.

It wasn’t until 1988 that the full implications of that time were realized. That summer was seeing the first G 8 conference held in Canada. The call went out to temporary agencies for a variety of low level clerical jobs to be filled. As I was in need of work and fully qualified I applied for a job as a media clerk. The interview went well and everything looked good until one day I received an embarrassed phone call from the employment agency.

I wasn’t going to be given security clearance so they would not be able to hire me. Initially I was flabbergasted, but then I thought back to a few years previous and it sort of made sense. At first it was funny, but as the years have past it has caused me to wonder about how much this could have potentially affected my future.

In hindsight it’s easy to say that it was a mistake to get involved with something that adversely affected me down the road. But since I have never had any real interest in pursuing a career that would involve security clearance I don’t see that as a consideration. If the opportunity somehow arose that I could go back in time and relive moments I would probably not change a thing. As to whether or not I’d ever demo again, I’d have to say no, I can accomplish more through my writing.

Do I think they are a waste of time and energy. That depends on circumstances and subject. It, like most things do, comes down to personal choice. If it’s something you feel strongly about and a demo seems to be the way to express that emotion then go for it. There really is nothing to compare with the sensation of being part of something that is bigger then you, surrounded by people who share a common intent. Savour and enjoy those moments for what they are, but don’t let them blind you to the realities of the situation.

Marching in a demo is a far cry from committing yourself to a course of action that could have consequences you are not even aware exist. Think carefully before letting the emotions of the event carry you further then you want. Remember your purpose for being there and don’t deviate. You have the right to free speech and to demonstrate but use it wisely so that it can’t be taken away from you.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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